Last night I gave myself a break from work and went to see one of my favorite bands ever: Pinback. The best comp I can give is they remind me of a mellower Pavement, which greatly undersells how good they are. Based in San Diego, their music reflects the climate and vibe of the city. Their records are best played while driving in your car during the summer. The only negative by-product of the show is, despite washing my hands four times I still have the stamp from the show because the bouncer stamped my hand with the force of a Justin Verlander fastball.
As I drove home after the show I was thinking about potential players with enigmatic fantasy value. The first player I thought of was James McDonald. Although his final accounting statistics don't look overly impressive, during the first half of the season he was a fantasy superstar.
In his first 17 starts, he was unhittable with a 2.37 ERA, 8.18 K/9 and 2.54 BB/9.
After that great stretch, he was awful, posting a 7.53 ERA, 7.53 K/9 and 5.61 BB/9 in the next 13 starts.
What happened to McDonald?
The table below shows the percent difference in pitch usage by game situation for his first 17 starts compared to the poor 13 starts. Overall, McDonald used four-seam fastball and slider, his best pitch, less often – four percent and three percent respectively.
Like most pitchers, the four-seam fastball was his primary pitch (thrown 46% of the time) in order to setup his secondary pitches. During the 17 excellent starts hitters were only hitting .230 against the four-seam fastball. However, during the poor starts it became more hittable; hitters had a .372 batting average.
Here's the difference in pitch location frequency of his four-seam fastball
The big difference was the location. During the first 17 starts he threw the fastball for strikes 66% of the time compared to only 63% of the time the remainder of the season. Also, when he was throwing strikes, the strikes he was throwing were left up and over the middle of the plate, which found more barrels of bats.
It’s seems overly simplistic to say four-seam fastball location was the sole reason for the turn in McDonald’s season, but the biggest increase in batting average came from the four-seam fastball. Not surprisingly, all his secondary pitches saw an increase in batting average too.
“Like real estate, location is everything.” - Vin Scully
The same is true with pitch location. Command of a primary pitch, in most cases the fastball, is necessary to have sustained success as a starting pitcher because it allows secondary pitches to be more effective. Without fastball command an otherwise above average breaking ball becomes average and more hittable. McDonald’s season is a reminder of how delicate success can be in the majors.
What's McDonald's Fantasy Value in 2013?
Despite the subpar year, McDonald is someone I’ll be targeting in drafts. At Mock Draft Central he’s the 63rd starting pitcher being taken, after limited upside pitchers such as Scott Baker and Edwin Jackson. His slider had the ninth highest swing-and-miss rate of any starting pitcher in the league, so he can miss bats. Couple that with the elite performance he’s already shown, albeit in a small sample, tells me it’s possible for him to be a top 20 fantasy pitcher. I suspect as we get closer to draft day his draft position will increase. If he falls to the 50th pitcher overall I’ll take a chance on him.